Italy in downward spiral

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:13 AM ET

Italian soccer received a major shot in the arm just after getting a boot in the pants this week.

Since its surprising 2006 World Cup win, Italian soccer has suffered a downward spiral that has many observers predicting a disastrous World Cup in South Africa.

Some of the best players in the world have opted to play in other countries, while the Italian national team stumbled at the European championship and Confederation Cup. It did qualify for the World Cup by winning its group, but even that came far less impressively than anyone expected.

On the club level, European trophies have been non-existent.

The quality of Italian soccer has come into question. Many of the young "stars" are having trouble getting on the pitch with their domestic sides, while Marcello Lippi continues to fashion a national team that would be the ideal poster child for a retirement community development.

NONE ON LIST

Further embarrassment was heaped on Italian soccer with the release of the list for the Ballon d'Or nominations for world footballer of the year. The winner will be announced Dec. 1.

Cristiano Ronaldo won it last year. There are 30 players nominated and not one is an Italian-born player.

It was a kick in the shorts.

"No Italian player in the list of 30 should make us reflect," said Giancarlo Abete, president of the Italian football association. "I believe there could have been some Italians in there."

Abete is correct. Lists of this nature are always flawed. The usual culprits are all there, while others such as Ryan Giggs and Karim Benzema are startling in their inclusion. And how anyone could have left Gianluigi Buffon off the list is mind-boggling. But after goalkeeper Buffon, you would be hard-pressed to find any other Italian deserving.

Abete is, in fact, concerned about the lack of Italian players being recognized as global leaders in the game.

It should be a clarion call that the development of good, young players is somehow being stifled by Italian teams, following the direction of top teams in the English Premier Leagueg. Foreign players are dominating starting lineups even if the difference in quality is marginal.

The lack of a nomination also speaks to what is missing with Italian players today. It is the lack of the spectacular, the inability of a player to take a game by the throat and win it.

The winner of the Ballon d'Or will be someone who can do just that, change a match in the blink of an eye and leave the fans gasping.

Alex Del Piero could do that in his prime. Roberto Baggio could. Maybe Totti. But who can do it now? Who could do it in the past five years?

This week, Italian soccer also received a shot in the arm. AC Milan travelled to the Bernabeu in Spain and defeated Real Madrid 3-2 in a Champions League game. There was much celebration over the stunning result because it was so unexpected.

Italian club soccer was desperate for a positive result.

But one game doesn't change the overall picture. Italian soccer needs to improve its product.

Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho captured the state of Italian soccer after the AC Milan-Real Madrid game, saying: "The win in the Bernabeu was historic, just like the loss to Zurich at the San Siro (in Milan.)"

MORRIS.DALLACOSTA@SUNMEDIA.CA


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